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A New Year Brings New Challenges for Atlanta Braves

The Braves' Main Challenge Will Be to Forget Crushing Loss That Ended Previous Season

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COMMENTARY | The beginning of a new year is the chance to start over and put previous failures behind you. Unfortunately, the baseball season doesn't begin simultaneously with the new year, but it is a reminder that the Atlanta Braves need to put 2012 behind them.

Many fans couldn't wait to forget the 2011 season, and the end of the 2012 season was almost as crushing.

To be a bit more positive, this season couldn't possibly end any worse than the previous two seasons for Braves fans, right? That would just be cruel and inhumane.

But as we turn the page toward a new season, there are still many hurdles this team and coaching staff will have to leap over in order to make sure this season ends on a much-needed high note.

Solving the leadoff spot

It was assumed that filling the center field spot would coincide with filling the need for a true leadoff hitter -- like Michael Bourn.

The Braves desperately need someone at the top of the lineup that will get on base for all the big boppers they've pieced in the middle of the lineup. Looking at the current roster, there isn't anyone that jumps out as a true leadoff hitter.

If the season started today, I would hope Fredi González would be smart enough to place Martin Prado in the leadoff role.

Prado, who can be plugged in anywhere and succeed, was great when forced into the leadoff spot for most of 2010. He registered 319 at-bats from the leadoff spot that year and hit .322 with a .362 OBP.

Throughout his entire career, he has a .298 batting average when batting first -- compared to .290 when batting second.

There have been talks of Andrelton Simmons possibly fitting into the leadoff spot, but I think that's a lot of pressure for a young kid. The smart move would be to leave him to excel at the bottom of the order. Ultimately, he profiles as a No. 2 two hitter.

The Braves were seventh in the National League in OBP in 2012. A number that must improve, especially out of the leadoff spot, if the Braves are going to have any success in 2013.

Finding a new leader

Sadly, the end of the 2012 season also meant the end of an incredible career by one of the greatest Braves of all time in Chipper Jones. His presence in the lineup and in the locker room will be missed.

But it's time for the Braves to find the new face of the franchise, and the Braves are fortunate enough to have a great group of players to choose from.

The obvious choices include Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. But a lot of fans really took to Simmons when he came up, and playing the shortstop position really helps boost that exposure.

Depending on how contract talks go with Brian McCann he would be the perfect replacement for Chipper. But with Christian Bethancourt waiting to take over and McCann likely seeking big money, I wouldn't be surprised if this is his last year as the Braves' backstop.

For Braves fans, it is important to have that central figure who will keep fans coming to the stadium. During the announcement of lineups before each game for the past several years, it has been clear that Chipper was the fan favorite. It will be interesting to see who gets the loudest ovation this year.

Finding an ace

Current discussions I've had with Braves fans over the course of the past two seasons have revolved around the Braves needing to find a true ace -- a Justin Verlander type.

That doesn't mean the Braves have to go out and find someone as dominant as Verlander, but who is going to be the Verlander of this team? Who is going to lead this staff?

The Braves have assembled a great pitching staff the past four seasons, but there hasn't been one pitcher over the course of the season who stood out as the team's ace.

I think Brandon Beachy was on that road before being shut down, and Kris Medlen certainly made a case for that role with his finish to the 2012 season.

The solution will have to come from within the team as the Braves don't have the resources or money to go out and trade or sign a true ace.

Again, as with finding a new leader, the Braves have several good candidates.

Tim Hudson is clearly the veteran of the staff, but I think his days of being an ace are over. Medlen and Beachy are the two leading candidates who could finally give the Braves the ace they need to be World Series contenders. With Beachy out until at least midseason, it will be up to Medlen early on in 2013.

In a few years, if Julio Teheran lives up to his potential, he could become that type of starter. But for the 2013 season, there needs to be someone who steps up on the mound and separates himself from the rest of the staff.

The other clear problem is figuring out what to do in left field or third base. If management is content going into opening day with this roster then Gonzalez will have a difficult job each night of deciding who will play where. I think every Braves fan would like to see them get an everyday left fielder, which would allow Prado to move to third, but those options are looking more limited as the countdown to opening day continues.

The great thing about baseball is that a new season always brings new hope. No one thought the Oakland Athletics or Baltimore Orioles would be in the postseason at the beginning of 2012, but they were.

While the Braves are in better shape than most teams, their main challenge again this year will be to forget the crushing loss that ended the previous season. Depending on how they respond, this team has the potential to fly high like an infield fly in 2013.

Jake Mastroianni has written for several websites pertaining to the Braves and baseball in general. He also has experience working in media relations for minor league baseball, as well as at the collegiate level.

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